An Irish GP has called on the Government to fund a catch-up campaign for the meningitis B vaccine, after receiving an influx in calls about the jab this week.
A spike in meningitis cases and three deaths have caused concern and unease among many parents across the country.
The HSE recently announced that there have been 11 cases of meningococcal disease reported since the last week of 2018, more than double the five cases for the same time period last year.
A public petition has gathered over 28,000 signatures to introduce a free catch-up campaign for the vaccine.
At present, children born before October 2016 are not covered for a free MenB vaccine, which can cost between €300-450 privately for the doses needed.
Speaking with Sean O’Rourke on RTÉ Radio One, Dr Yvonne Williams said her clinic in Co Clare had been “inundated” with calls for information since last week.
“We’ve been inundated since last Wednesday with worried parents, with questions about meningitis and the meningitis fee, and trying to book their children in for those who haven’t been vaccinated,” she said.
The Shannon-based GP said that many parents cannot afford to pay the private fee for the vaccine, despite having concerns for their children from the recent rise in cases reported.
“We have had to tell parents the cost of the vaccine and unfortunately for some parents, they simply can’t afford that, and they are very worried.
“It is a lifesaving vaccine, it’s free for children in the UK, and we think it’s something that the government should introduce. 90pc of meningitis cases are now caused by meningitis B.”
“I have three children myself all born before the cut-off date, and it was something we decided as a family to prioritise. It's January and a time when parents don’t have a lot of money left over after Christmas.
“Parents are worried, they would love their children to have it, and I really do wish that the Government would reconsider their decision not to fund a catch-up campaign for children born after October 2016.”
According to Dr Williams, Ireland is “nowhere near” the uptake rate required to eradicate the B strain of the disease in the country.
“Looking at the uptake rates for the vaccine around Ireland at vaccines that are free, there is an issue with uptake. We need about 95pc or more children to get the vaccine or more to keep everybody safe, and we’re nowhere near those figures,” she said.
“Tipperary-south was the only area in recent years that met that target, so there are children out there that can avail of a free vaccine and their parents aren’t availing of that.”
Following the news of three deaths, the HSE said of the three patients who died, two different meningococcal strain types were identified, none of which was MenB.
Dr Williams said that cases of MenC, another strain of meningococcal disease, have fallen in recent years and that MenB is now the most common.
“We have a vaccine for meningitis C and the rates of that have fallen hugely in recent years since that vaccine was issued, meningitis B is now the most common strain,” she said.
“There is a meningitis A and Y vaccine, and in the NHS, that vaccine for meningitis C and Y, the combination vaccine, is offered to all their teenagers when they start school and to students who attend for the first time.
“There are vaccines out there that cover more strains that aren’t yet available in Ireland, but I think if we could start by encouraging parents of that 25pc of children that haven’t had them, please get your children vaccinated for meningitis, it’s life-saving.”
Following the news of the three deaths last week, a spokesperson for the HSE said the rise in cases was a "concern" and urged people to look out for the symptoms.
Dr Suzanne Cotter, Specialist in Public Health Medicine at the HSE Health Protection Surveillance Centre, said: "Although meningococcal disease incidence generally increases in the winter months, the recent increase is cause for concern and the HSE wishes to alert the public to the signs and symptoms of this disease so that immediate medical attention can be sought if someone has symptoms that could be caused by this bug.
"If anyone has any concerns about meningitis they should ring their GP in the first instance. Meningitis and septicaemia often happen together and symptoms can appear in any order. Some may not appear at all.
"Early symptoms can include; fever, headache, vomiting, diarrhoea, muscle pain, stomach cramps, fever with cold hands and feet and a rash, but do not wait for the rash to appear.
"If someone is ill and getting worse, get medical help immediately.
"Parents of children should also check that they are up-to-date regarding their childhood meningococcal vaccinations."